Friday, March 13, 2009

Lost at sea

I turned my back on my beautiful curly maple dulcimer for seven years, after having learned to play quite prettily in modern chording/flatpicking style. I had become disillusioned with it. During those seven years that my dulcimer gathered dust, I fell in love with the raw and archaic lure of drones... I finally became newly determined to re-learn to play my dulcimer in traditional noter/drone style. Having been very active during that interim in listening to older field recordings, playing old-time banjo, and singing Appalachian ballads, I was now familiar enough with this older music to finally have a real sense of direction for my dulcimer playing.

I searched out material to learn from. What I discovered is that yes, there was indeed some very good teaching material out there concerning drone style and traditional playing...but it was scattered all about, often comprising a page or two in this book, a small chapter in that book, an article, an isolated web page on dulcimer history, etc. Much of the more helpful material was in older books. There were not many comprehensive recordings to be had either- a handful of good ones from a handful of traditional players, but even those consisted of varied styles between players. And often on a CD there would be one or two traditionally played tracks buried in with a dozen modern playing style tracks. It was frustrating. It was a challenge to gather a cohesive body of information to learn from. I wound up skipping all around from place to place, trying to fill in the blanks- of which there were many. I picked up a tidbit here, a tidbit there. Sometimes the tidbits didn't fit together well, and I had to figure that out too.

In stark contrast to this, during my search I encountered a seemingly endless sea of learning material geared towards helping beginners learn to play in chording/DAD/capo/flatpick style, the playing style so popular for the past several decades.
I began to wonder how on Earth any musical beginner with less experience than I in gathering traditional music information could ever manage to get started in traditional dulcimer playing on their own.

As I sought information in first one place and then another, I slowly began to find my own path through the teaching material and information maze. I am certainly no expert, and I'm not a professional musician either...but somehow I've managed to steer my way along, kept afloat by my strong interest and admiration for the logic and beauty of the older simpler ways of the dulcimer. I've had to overcome some puzzling musical obstacles, and lately I've had a steadily growing sense that others might benefit from and enjoy hearing about some of what I have learned (and continue learning), and my experiences along the way. Thus, on Valentine's Day I started this blog. Instead of writing books, an online blog seemed to me a more logical and efficient open-ended vehicle for freely sharing what I can offer, and for me to learn from you as well.

We all have our own musical journey to travel, but if we can share a little of what we've found with others, then each of our unique journeys will be that much richer. I still have a lot to learn- there are so many gaps in what I know. I hope to continue learning from others for the rest of my life.


  1. I'm a newbie to dulcimer - haven't even gotten one yet, but am planning to borrow one from a local library (awesome that I can do that). I love your blog and am working my through it, having started at the beginning. I took up music "for real" when I retired 6 years ago. I played violin as a kid, but quit after 8th grade. I love Appalachian music, but my dad insisted on classical only. Bummer. I currently play sax in 2 community band sand in a trio with my teacher and another student. So the dulcimer will be a sideline along with my uke, harmonicas and banjos (tenor and 5-string), but I'm looking forward to jumping in. Thanks so much for your blog!!! Your writings are clear, accessible and inspiring.

  2. I would also like to thank you for this blog! I am a newbie at dulcimer playing and would prefer to learn the noter way of it fits with tradition. Thanks for providing this blog..I am using it to help my husband as well!